Board Insight

Northern Devon – a glimpse of the future – by Tim Jones

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We are all aware of the rapid advances in technology, including the spectacular speed in progressing artificial intelligence. Some scientists are predicting that it will be less than 5 years before we take it for granted that a significant amount of our daily routines will be delivered either completely or partially by robots. Whilst this might be an alarming prospect there can be no doubt that if this can be channelled in a positive direction, it will be of huge value to us all and lead to advances in areas, such as health, where disease has been a persistent blight for many years as evidenced by the unexpected Covid pandemic.

An illustration of the staggering capability of the latest artificial intelligence was demonstrated by a comparison between a human/ manual processing of a mortgage application by comparison with a machine. The human version took 6 weeks. The machine took 6 seconds. The UK has been trying to understand the implications of this and how much of a threat it could be to our workforce. The estimate is that two thirds of all our jobs will either completely or partly be processed by machines. In certain sectors this could effect a large percentage of the current workforce, such as banking, insurance and legal services. There are however many sectors that will still mainly rely on human intuition. Nobody has (yet) managed to programme a robot to understand instinct and emotion.

A glimpse of the future is fascinating and will be on display at a forthcoming event in Japan. This is the Osaka World Expo which will be held in Spring 2025. This will be a multi-billion dollar showcase for the world market. It is being held in Japan to combat chronic labour shortages and their increasing need to use artificial intelligence, avatars and robots. Japan for many years has suffered from chronic underperformance in productivity. It is now the world’s fastest-ageing economy. This is forcing Japanese companies and their government to completely rethink their approach to the future. Even world leading Japanese technology is suffering from this decline. Their famous bullet train has just withdrawn their beloved food trolley because of a lack of passengers. Their labour market will have a shortage of around 11 million workers by 2040. Those over 65 already account for around 30% of their total population. This is resulting in huge problems in certain sectors, such as the construction industry, who are struggling to hire workers. The average age of a construction worker is now around 50. Similar problems are being experienced in manufacturing and delivery.

To address these problems, Japan has put a huge effort in to developing a new generation of robots. For example, in one of their major car manufacturing plants they now use a fleet of vehicle logistics robots to move production around the plant. They have also developed driverless lorries. This technology has not just been confined to manufacturing and distribution. In agriculture a robot duck has recently been introduced to churn up weeds in rice paddies. In retail, a small convenience store in Tokyo, which sells everything from toothpaste to egg sandwiches, is being run by a newly installed avatar which is controlled remotely. This is enabling retailers to open in isolated rural locations and to extend opening hours in evenings and at weekends.

Northern Devon is already part of this new world. One of our largest milk producers has recently deployed 6 milking robots. There are a number of farmers, for example on Exmoor, who are able to work on ground which would be unsafe for human operators. The extensive deployment of drones has already proved to be a huge improvement for many of our local farmers.

Whether we like these trends or not, it is inevitable that the pace of change will accelerate. Northern Devon cannot afford to be in the backwater, indeed we have many brilliant local businesses who are already ahead of the game. Our colleges are well equipped to teach how these technologies can be used. Most importantly, however, it is crucial that all of our workforce is trained up with digital skills – regardless of age or ability. This is a huge opportunity for Northern Devon to take a giant step into this fascinating world.